12

Why does English use singular they instead of making up a new word for this?

In my native language there’s a word dia which has the same meaning as he/she, but it doesn’t give information about the gender of that person.

I’ve seen questions close to this, but they don’t provide the reason for not making up a new word for this distinct meaning.

  • 1
    People have proposed new words. See Arjan's answer to a very frequently viewed question on this site, Is there a correct gender-neutral singular pronoun {“his” vs. “her” vs. “their”}? – herisson Sep 17 '18 at 5:39
  • 8
    Why questions about language are almost always poor candidates for good answers as they are often subject to personal opinion. Language is what people make of it, and, at least currently, the use of the singular they is seeing a resurgence. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Sep 17 '18 at 7:34
  • 7
    Why does your language just have one word dia which doesn’t specify whether you’re talking about a man or a woman? Why haven’t they made up a pronoun that specifies the gender? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 17 '18 at 10:59
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I'm not sure where Albert comes from. But when I lived in Japan decades ago, and made an effort at Japanese, I found the non-gender specific pronouns, and particularly the title San (which can mean Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms) quite inconvenient. And since the Japanese are loathe to refer to people with given names, I found myself sometimes needing to ask, at the company where I worked, when a name was mentioned - "Is Nishi-san a man or a woman" which felt lame and awkward. No doubt I will be taken to task for this but I felt handicapped in having to think in a genderless way. – WS2 Oct 27 at 18:25
  • @WS2 Japanese does have gendered pronouns (masculine 彼 kare vs feminine 彼女 kanojo), though they are of course less likely to use them than English. I’ve sometimes felt it was a hindrance in languages like Finnish or Chinese where there really are no gendered pronouns at all, but more often than not, it doesn’t really present a problem in my experience – context usually makes it either clear or unimportant. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 27 at 18:30
36
+250

People have created new gender-neutral pronouns. (A good list of currently used ones can be found here.) Furthermore, the move to create gender-neutral pronouns in English is quite old. However, none of these pronouns were ever very successful. Few people are even aware they exist. Currently, these new pronouns are usually confined to the transgender community, but even there singular they is preferred by the majority.

People often say they don't like the way these new pronouns sound (example). Pronouns are used very frequently, and it's definitely jarring to not hear what you're expecting. It's even worse when speaking, having to think and make a conscious decision to switch every single time you use a pronoun. This is mentioned in the book What is Morphology?:

One generalization we can make is that while content words are an open class and it is possible to coin new ones, function words are a closed class. A person cannot easily invent a new preposition or conjunction. Perhaps most telling is the long history of people trying to invent a gender-neutral singular pronoun for English. Suggestions have included co, et, hesh, na, e, and thon. Some linguists have recently proposed tey (on the analogy of plural they, which is gender-neutral), with further forms tem and ter (modeled on them and her). None of these novel words has caught on, while novel content words like modem and cell phone enter the language relatively smoothly.

The Guardian has a very good summary of the history:

Baron’s blog walks you through all the failed attempts – starting with the mid­ 19th century’s ne, nis, nim, and citing sci-­fi’s contributions of neologism: co; xie; per; en. As early as 1878, Napoleon Bonaparte Brown argued that the need for a new pronoun was “so desperate, urgent, imperative that ... it should long since have grown on our speech”.

In 1884, thon, hi, le, hiser and ip were variously suggested. Thon – a blend of that and one – was coined by Philadelphia lawyer Charles C Converse and Baron demonstrates how it was the closest thing to a successful attempt at entering the vernacular; it was accepted by two major dictionaries and even adopted by some writers. But it was grammatical pedantry, not feminism, that motivated Converse. He wanted a “beautiful symmetry” in English and to avoid “hideous solecisms”.

The second closest thing to enter the vernacular was named after American mathematician Michael Spivak; initially e, es, em (e wrote; es eyes are blue) later ey, eir, em (ey wrote; I like em). Other sources attribute these pronouns (formed by dropping the th from they, their and them) to a competition run by the Chicago Association of Business Communicators, won by a Christine M Elverson in 1975. The Spivak pronouns are used today by some in the genderqueer and gaming communities.

Further proposals – hes, hem, ir, ons, e, ith, lim, ler, lers – sprang up, often suggested by newspapers. Readers suggested portmanteaus: hiser; himer; hasher; shis; shim; heer; hie. Humanist lexicon suggested hu, which can occasionally sound like the Kiwi accent (hu wrote; I like hum). Jayce’s system, meanwhile, suggested jee, jem (jee wrote; I like jem). You can find these, and many more, listed at A Chronology of a Word that Failed.

Why has a need for such a short and simple word been so unsuccessful? One opponent of the “bastard word form” portmanteaus, wrote in the New York Commercial Advertiser in 1884 in response to the idea of thon: “All attempts in this direction have failed, partly because it is always exceedingly difficult to introduce new forms into a language, unless they spring up naturally and, as it were, spontaneously.”


The polite pronoun

As it turns out, English went through an extremely similar transition before, with the other plural to single pronoun: you.

The Oxford English Dictionary summarizes the change (you can also read their entry for "you" for free):

The use of you as a ‘polite’ form of address to a single person progressively encroached on thou (originally the singular pronoun) until by 1600 thou (and its objective case thee) was restricted to ‘affective’ (both positive and negative) uses (i.e. so as to be intimate or disparaging). By the late seventeenth century you had become normal in almost all contexts and thou and thee were limited to the Bible and religious use, the Quakers, and regional dialects.

Indeed, the Quakers of old especially rejected singular you:

  • George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote an entire battledoor (i.e. a textbook) on the subject (1660).
  • William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania, dedicated a chapter of his book to the subject (1669).
    • It was first ascribed in way of Flattery to Proud Popes and Emperors; imitating the Heathens vain Homage to their Gods; thereby ascribing a Plural Honour to a single Person; as if One Pope had been made up of many Gods, and One Emperor of many Men. For which Reason, You, only to be used to many, became first spoken to One.

    • (↑ In the first person, this describes Royal we.)

Frequency of use

I decided to do some corpora research to see how popular different pronouns are. To make it easier, I decided to just look at the -self form, which allows me to use a single search. I used this iWeb search, and then searched the results. Here's what I found:

  • Themselves: ??? (Potentially the most popular, but there's no easy way to sort out plural from singular)
  • Themself: 5369 hits
    • I did not sort through this, so this number may include some plural usage and duplicates
    • An additional 15-20 or so hits come from typos and similar nonstandard versions such as theirself, thereself, and themeself.
  • Hirself: 40 hits (excludes quotes of older sources which meant "herself")
    • 23 different websites
  • Emself: 43 hits
    • 6 different websites (most hits are from a single site)
  • Xirself: 35 hits
    • 1 website
  • Xemself: 6 hits
    • 4 sites
  • Zirself: 5 hits
    • 3 sites
  • Perself: 3 hits
  • Xumself: 1 hit
  • Xyrself: 1 hit
  • Ximself: 1 hit
  • Zeself: 1 hit
  • Zieself: 1 hit

Also note:

  • There were several different variations of himself/herself, but I didn't make a list of them
  • Humself: This showed up, but all the hits were typos for "himself"
  • Zemself: The one result is a rant about gender pronouns
  • I went through the entire list by hand, but I didn't look at the context for everything, so I may have missed some words.
  • 7
    People have tried to create gender-neutral pronouns, but all attempts have failed so far, as the Guardian journalist noted. – Mari-Lou A Sep 17 '18 at 7:16
  • 5
    Short version - just because a word is cromulent doesn't mean people will use it. – WhatRoughBeast Sep 17 '18 at 13:40
  • 1
    A further complication with thon is that some dialects have demonstrative pronoun thon as a variant of yon. While there are of course plenty of homonyms in English, it would be a source of further resistance where thon is already in use in a very different meaning. – Jon Hanna Sep 17 '18 at 14:16
  • 7
    many people find inventing new words to be doubleplusungood, particularly when politically motivated – Matt Sep 17 '18 at 15:53
  • 1
    Thank you for continuing to curate your answer. – tchrist Oct 19 at 23:34
14

Mostly, because they already have singular they. It's been in the language since the 14th century. Prior to that, there was generic he, which continued to also be used until the 20th century and is still found. There are also the inclusive doubles "he/she" and "s/he" ("inclusive" though not as inclusive as we might want, on which more below).

The earliest reasons for wanting an alternative to both singular they and generic he that was an explicitly third-person, singular, gender-neutral pronoun came not so much out of sexual politics (whether to ignore gender where it isn't known or relevant, or to describe non-binary people) but the 18th century dislike of words that did not neatly fit; They being grammatically plural and he also having a specifically masculine use that wasn't clearly distinguished from its generic use upset the same sort of people that got upset by less being used of both countable and uncountable terms while fewer could only be used of countable.

This encouraged people to desire such a pronoun, but it wasn't a pressing need.

Later, the undesirable ability of generic he to carry an assumption of masculinity with it made it increasingly unwelcome, especially when the political implications gained more attention, such that it is now largely obsolete, but they and "he/she" still served enough that most people didn't feel any need to adopt ze, thon,* or other suggested pronouns.

In particular, if someone wanted to specifically indicate singularity and also wanted to be neutral as to gender, but were not considering genders other than male and female (which tended not to be considered until relatively recently) then "he/she" filled that gap. Meanwhile they continued in informal use in almost all forms of English, as much as it was considered improper by some.

Conversely, while people are beginning to be more respectful of other genders, the argument against grammatical plurality being used with singular antecedents has lost favour. As such a reason why people may have favoured he over they 150 years ago or "he/she" over they 50 years ago is no longer as strongly with us.

That they is the pronoun preferred by a great many non-binary and gender-queer people today continues to reduce the pressure to do otherwise. While those who do favour an explicitly singular gender-neutral pronoun will lead us to use ze of zir, or thon of thon, it doesn't lead to a strong pressure to replace they and them in other uses.

In all, while we've had different reasons to be unhappy with the position of they, he and "he/she" over the centuries, we haven't had any reason to be happy with any particular alternative.


*Note also that thon is a variant of yon in some dialects, or of meaning something yet further away than something yon, which wouldn't have been a big pressure against adoption, but would still have been a slight pressure. There are of course plenty of homonyms in the language, but being a homonym does add resistance to adoption of new terms.

12

Because creating a new closed-class word is a hugely invasive change to people's way of speaking.

It's much more drastic than creating a new noun (euphemism) for an old (derogatory) noun. The difference is that you can to a certain degree choose which noun you use to describe people or concepts, but you can't opt out of using a pronoun because there is only one for one feature combination.

Also, to get a new pronoun adopted, the speech community would have to adjust processes that are much more automatic and ingrained than to adopt a new euphemism. This makes people liable to view it as unjustified interference in their personal affairs and hate every new proposal on principle (often rationalizing their opposition on grounds such as "it sounds ugly").

Ultimately, people are likely to get on board with such a change only if they view the underlying agenda for social change as justified - and sexual politics is a divisive issue on which large segments of the population have quite irreconcilable views. In general, using language as an instrument of social change has a bad historical record as opposed to bringing about the change and then watching language adapt.

9

There's no authority for English, even for a single major English-speaking country, so there's no-one to mandate the existence of a new word, never mind its use. Such authorities tend to move slowly, and prefer established words to creating new ones in the same niche, and there are arguments for he as well as they as a gender-neutral singular (linguistic arguments that miss the point). So we consider the situation where ordinary people want to use gender-neautral language.

If someone tried to coin a new word to replace singular they, they'd have trouble even getting people to recognise that the mystery new word is a pronoun. Then this new word gets flagged up by a spell checker if someone tries to reuse it, so hardly anyone bothers; they rephrase the sentence instead. Fundamentally though, it's just not necessary, people have been using singular they for years, they¹ just don't realise it – did you on reading this paragraph?

Or to rewrite that with one of the more common alternative suggestions:

If someone tried to coin a new word to replace singular they, ze'd have trouble even getting people to recognise that the mystery new word is a pronoun. Then this new word gets flagged up by a spell checker if someone tries to reuse it, so hardly anyone bothers; ze rephrases the sentence instead.

Some constructions, like (s)he, are clear enough, but are only gender neutral on the assumption of two traditional genders, and there's a feeling that if we're going to make an effort to be neutral, we should do it properly.

When used in writing, it's often not clear how such a word would be pronounced, when spoken, (assumptions of mishearing aside) it's not clear how they'd be spelt.


¹ OK, that one's plural.

  • My example was actually accidental at first; it's the natural product of trying to write clearly and neutrally (wihtout claiming to succeed at either) – Chris H Sep 17 '18 at 13:51
7

A lan­guage is not made by “think­ing of a trans­la­tion” for a word. For ex­am­ple, it’s not like you have the Ja­panese word kon­nichi­wak and then ask your­self “How do we say this in English?”, and fol­low­ing that then an­swer your­self “Oh let’s use the word hi”.

That’s not how it works – be­cause there is no English word for kon­nichiwa. It be­longs only to the Ja­panese lan­guage and to the Ja­panese lan­guage alone. If you want to trans­late text into English, you’re not sup­posed to trans­late it word by word. The goal of trans­la­tion is in­stead to con­vey the mean­ing of the orig­i­nal rather than to trans­late its text word by word in a me­chan­i­cal fash­ion.

For in­stance, English has a lot of ad­jec­tives. Not all of these have their own trans­la­tion in other lan­guages. Again the goal of trans­la­tion is to con­vey the orig­i­nal mean­ing. It so hap­pens that when I say kon­nichiwa in Ja­panese and when I say hi in English, they both con­vey a greet­ing.

Another ex­am­ple: when some­one asks if you want to go out for cof­fee, you could an­swer I’d love to. But if you trans­late that to a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, in Filipino you could say oo. Three sen­tences trans­lated into one word? If you trans­late it word by word in­nto English, you’d get oo ini­ibig ko – which is hon­estly not very nor­mal in Filipino. So you could just use oo, which is just as sim­ple as yes is. The pur­pose was to con­vey the mes­sage that you wanted tea, no more and no less.

Un­less it’s pointed out that you have to em­pha­size that you’d love some tea, then you could say ay oo gus­tong gusto ko – which ac­tu­ally also trans­lates dif­fer­ently; word by word, it would be “Oh yes, I do want tea.”

So it’s not that they don’t want to cre­ate a new word for it: it’s just that its mean­ing is con­veyed dif­fer­ently in English than it is in the orig­i­nal. They could cre­ate a new word for it, but be­cause it can al­ready be prop­erly con­veyed with­out one, they feel no press­ing need.

So in my opin­ion I don’t think there is any need to cre­ate a new word for this.

  • 1
    The necessity for a pure gender-neutral pronoun is most sought after by the LGBTQ community, there is a "need" and some have proposed several solutions but they haven't really caught on with the general public. Using "he or she" or "they" for an individual who is non-binary can be interpreted as being offensive, or more generously, lacking in sensitivity. – Mari-Lou A Sep 17 '18 at 7:22
4

As other answers note, the history of trying to invent a gender-neutral singular pronoun in English is littered with failures, nonce usages, and usages that become popular in insular communities but don't catch hold in dialect-wide populations. Indeed, while any invented word has hurdles to overcome before it is accepted and widely used, pronouns are an especially difficult class of word to change. Why is that? What would have to happen for an invented gender neutral pronoun to be accepted in English?

How does a pronoun become established in English?

In short: a linguistic need arises and a nearby available tool is adopted to meet it.

First, pronouns have not been invented often in the history of English. The most widely-known example is the importation of they/them/their from Old Norse instead of hie/hem/hier, which is widely documented in texts on Old and Middle English (see e.g. Brown 2009). In this case, the change started with Norse settlement in the north of England, and grew over a few centuries. It helped that the forms weren't that far off from the Old English pronouns, and that they/them/their provided the additional benefit of being clearly distinguished from other pronouns like he, him, and her. So a possible need for disambiguating pronouns was met by a nearby tool - an adjacent language's pronouns.

Newer pronominal forms like yinz and y'all have formed within dialects from the 19th century onward (Crystal 2011). The history of y'all shows how a need (how to distinguish a plural second person after the separate singular form thou disappears from use) is met with adding a modifier (you all), how that modifier was gradually contracted (y'all), and even how that existing form has now sometimes been adopted as a singular pronoun (as Crystal reports: "Howdy y'all" and "Y'all take care now" being delivered to one person).

In contrast, neologistic pronouns usually don't stick around. Pronouns are considered a closed class (ThoughtCo), which means that new words usually don't catch on to the class. That's why I don't have any examples of wildly successful pronouns made ex nihilo.

To adapt this pattern to the current situation:

  • We need a gender-neutral third person pronoun

  • The resulting pronoun will most likely be an existing tool adapted to the new situation, since they're joining a closed class of word

What Are the Likely Candidates for Inclusion?

They/Them/Their/Themselves/Themself As you note, one word is already being widely adopted for use as a gender-neutral singular pronoun: singular they. Present in English since the 14th century, especially for following singular antecedents like anyone and someone, singular they has also been adopted as a pronominal set by people who desire a gender-ambivalent option. Merriam-Webster describes its growth:

They is taking on a new use, however: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female. This is a different use than the traditional singular they, which is used to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context [...] The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female. If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, “This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work.”

So we have a need for people who don't identify as male or female to have a pronoun suited to them, and a tool that - while not originally nonbinary - did escape the conventional association with a single gender. So people who heard it and didn't initially understand its use would have a better chance of puzzling it out, or remembering its use afterwards. That makes they an effective option.

Variants like themself also show considerable promise, since the form *predates *themselves** but had fallen in popularity in the early modern period (Merriam-Webster). It encounters the problem that themselves, with the plural selves, may be perceived as plural in singular contexts. Having the available historical context, and the well-known word self available, helps the argument for themself, though it has not caught on widely in publications.

Other Pronouns - What Might Stop Them? Other proposed pronouns include xe and xir, hir, and many others (UWM). They involve changing vowels or consonants to create new and distinct forms. These forms have big hurdles that they need to overcome:

  • familiarity, or how to make these sound comprehensible and clear upon a first or second usage, compared to the other available options

  • pronunciation, or how to make the sounds

Xe and hir do okay, at least in writing, because they are relatively close to a recognizable pronoun. With xe, a reader can puzzle out that the h/sh of he or she have been replaced by an x that is neither one. Hir looks kind of halfway between him and her. Neither is quite as familiar as they.

Regarding pronunciation, it may not be clear how to pronounce the x in xe: is it /zi/ or /ɛksˈi/ or /ʃi/? With hir, it may not be clear how to distinguish the vowel from related vowels, like the one in her. Neither are insurmountable with a little teaching, but that in itself poses an issue in a closed system - new pronouns have tended to spread without being formally taught. So it will take some time to see if the proponents of these new pronouns can make the words catch on.

So combined, issues of familiarity and pronunciation may hinder these other pronouns from taking their place in the general population, even if they're familiar to the LGBT community and many of their allies. Even if, in theory, we agree that a totally separate third person nonbinary pronoun would be better, they benefits from being more familiar and easier to say.

  • I very much appreciate that you have provided a substantial answer complete with professional references such as Brown or Crystal. Your answer is very much appreciated. I really had hoped that the asker would return sometime this past week and award the Great Green Checkmark of Helpfulness either to your answer or to Laurel’s so that my conscience of equanimity could award the bounty to whichever of the two answers remained ungarlanded following said selection. Alas it was not to be. But such a good answer as yours very much merits community acclaim and upvotes, so I hope you stil get those. – tchrist Oct 27 at 16:57
2

Unlike in a language like Japanese, pronouns are a closed class. That means it's really hard to create a new personal pronoun (unlike Japanese where they fall in and out of favor over the span of decades). "They" has simply been around longer, so all the various neopronouns (e.g. xe, zir) never really caught on.

The only instances I'm aware of where a closed-class neopronoun has caught on are:

  1. Various dialectal English second-person plurals (yinz, y'all, yous), either from various contractions or from adding a plural suffix to the singular pronoun.
  2. The Modern Greek εσείς, the second-person plural. It exists because the original first-person plural and second-person plural (ἡμεῖς and ὑμεῖς) become homophones.
  • 2
    This really just echoes other answers. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 21 at 18:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.